A conversation between Mel M. Immergut and Professor Michael I. Sovern
Mel M. Immergut ’71, the chairman of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, reminisces with Professor Michael I. Sovern ’55 about unrest on campus, smoking cigars in the library, and waking up early for Saturday classes at the Law School
Mel M. Immergut ’71: So, I’d like to do some reminiscing—which, the older I get, the easier I find it to do, and the more I find I do it.
Michael I. Sovern ’55: [Laughs] You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Immergut: I’m sure, I’m sure.
[One thing] I was thinking about this morning in advance of our conversation: Columbia and Columbia Law School were such incredibly different places during the years that I was there than they are now. I was there during Kent State, when school closed in early May and either you took pass/fails or you came back in September to take your exams. Columbia was kind of Berkeley East. The school was really a hotbed of radicalism. I remember that a bunch of students, or non-students, occupied [various buildings on campus].
Sovern: Well, the real occupation was in the spring of ’68 just before you got here. And then there were other, very brief occupations. In fact, I remember having to deal with one or two of them, but nothing like the spring of ’68.
Immergut: [At that time,] I remember that there were always 50 or 75 desks set up on the steps of Low [Memorial Library] for every single cause that you could imagine. I also remember that if you were a student and you didn’t dress in the raunchiest, most ripped-up clothes, or if you shaved, you were kind of excoriated.
Sovern: That wasn’t true though in the Law School and Business School, was it? It was true of some of the graduate departments and some of the undergraduates, but we were still pretty tidy.
Immergut: When I go to the school now, people look like they’re dressed for interviews every day of the week.
Sovern: That’s funny because I transcribe a wider arc than you, and I remember a period probably in the early ’60s, it might have been in the late ’50s: I was junior man on the faculty so I was chairman of the student-faculty relations committee, and the faculty had before it a resolution requiring jackets and ties in the classroom. As the head of the student-faculty relations committee, I had to be the spokesman for the students’ opposition in the faculty meeting. But I went down in flames; the faculty adopted that resolution and jackets and ties were required for class attendance.
Immergut: I never knew that. The other thing that was different back in those days was Saturday classes.
Immergut: That was a real shock to my system because I was, and still am, a very ardent fisherman. I fished every weekend out of Montauk. Everyone was always wondering when I got to law school whether I would fish, or if I would actually go to class. And I remember that for the first four or five months of school, I religiously was there every Saturday morning. As you got into the spring, and the flounder and striped bass started to call me from Montauk, I remember actually missing a few classes. I also remember when man first landed on the moon, that I had a Saturday morning class with Professor Milton Handler. Of course, Professor Handler as a great antitrust authority was also a very stern disciplinarian. And the class was at 8 o’clock on Saturday morning.
Immergut: Everyone had stayed up all night the night before to watch and listen to Neil Armstrong land on the moon. I decided that since I wasn’t fishing that Saturday, I would take advantage of the fact, and even though I was really bleary-eyed I went to class on 8 o’clock that Saturday morning. And professor Handler, true to form, took attendance.
Sovern: Well, I remember having to teach Saturday classes. I was teaching evidence at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. when I first joined the faculty. The idea of Saturday classes, I think, went back to the faculty’s thought that [students] should spend time in the library when [they] weren’t in class. And so this brought you in an extra day.
And it didn’t work.
It was, I think, very wasteful. Ultimately we decided to cut it out. No more Saturday classes.
Immergut: No more Saturday classes! The other thing that I think was different in those days was the percentage of the class that went into public interest. Because law students, and Columbia students in particular were I think more—I was going to say radical, but that’s probably not the right word. I think people were more public spirit–oriented in those days, and that a much larger percentage of the class went into public interest law.
Sovern: Now, that’s interesting, because my experience is that today’s students have a very substantial proportion that is public-spirited. I wonder whether what’s happened is [related to] the debt load, which of course we try to ameliorate with our program of debt forgiveness. But your classmates didn’t have much debt, did they?
Immergut: No. Our tuition was only, I think, $2,800 a semester.
Sovern: Right, and so people could carry it. And I think it’s also the case that the jobs are harder to find. I think at the time of your class’ graduation, the public sector was attractive; people wanted to go to the Justice Department, the D.A.’s office. And, of course, the attitude towards government and the changes in administration obviously affect that. So I think some students still go into government, but without the kind of enthusiasm that your classmates would have manifested. But I don’t detect a significant drop-off in the wish to do good among today’s students as compared with your contemporaries or mine.
Immergut: I hope that’s the case. I hope that’s the case.
And then, of course, there was always the library [as the] center of school. I wonder if that is still the case. I did all my studying in the library. And I used to actually go to the second sub-basement when I really, really had to study, because it was almost as if you were in a hermetically sealed capsule. Nobody bothered you down there.
One episode I remember, I was down there at about 7 o’clock one night and my friend Walter Mack [’71], who became an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District, came down and said, “You’re not going to believe it, but there’s a cigar smoker going on up in the Case Lounge.”
Immergut: The General Cigar Company had set up this huge display up there with cigars and brandy to introduce students to cigars. So I said, “Sounds pretty good to me,” and I left the basement and went up there. There were only about three or four students that were up there, along with two people from the General Cigar Company, and also two hostesses, that may or may not have been from the General Cigar Company. And I remember thinking then: “How can this company do something like this when they only get four, five, or six people to actually attend.” Well, p.s., I remember all my classmates who were there, and all of them became cigar smokers.
Sovern: So, you think it worked?
Immergut: It worked! And only in the last year have I actually stopped smoking cigars.
Sovern: That’s funny. You remind me of another library basement story. It was not the Law School library, it was Butler Library, when I was an undergraduate. I was writing a paper on President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to purge his opponents in the 1938 election. At that time, Butler had a wonderful collection of old newspapers in the basement. I went down there and read the papers that I needed for my work—but then I browsed. I read the accounts of Lincoln’s assassination in the contemporary newspapers. And then I stumbled on a copy of the Daily News from December 8, 1941. Banner headline, all it said on the front page was: “War Declared.”
Sovern: I was commuting in those days from the Bronx. So I borrowed that newspaper and rode home on the subway with it open so everybody could see “War Declared,” and thought I’d get all sorts of excited reactions.
Nobody paid the slightest attention—this is New York after all.
Immergut: Right. [Laughs] Another big difference back in those days: In my class, I think we had 300 students, and we only had probably 10 women. I don’t remember when that really started to change.
Sovern: It started to change during my years as dean, but it accelerated even after. And as you probably know, the class[es are now]—give or take a few—50/50 each year, sometimes with slightly more women than men, and sometimes the other way around. But you remind me of one of my great decisions on behalf of equal rights. I don’t know if you remember, but the men’s room on the first floor was enormous, and the ladies’ room was very small. And so I directed that the men’s room be cut in half, with half of it to become a women’s room. The only question was what do you do with the urinals? And I said, “Why don’t we just put flower pots in them?” And so we did that, and at least when between classes women would have the same opportunity as the men to take a break.
Immergut: Oh, that’s great. That’s terrific.
Sovern: It is interesting to me that your time at the school brackets the most transformative time in my life, probably since I learned how to read.
It was 1968 that caused a loss of confidence by the faculty in the administration, so the faculty elected an executive committee in the spring of ’68 of faculty from the entire university. It consisted of 10 people, 9 of whom were very senior figures—Nobel laureate Polykarp Kusch, Daniel Bell, Eli Ginsberg, Lionel Trilling. And through a series of strange accidents, I became the chairman of that committee. So I spent the summer of ’68, and then the academic year of ’68 to’69, working to restore the place to some degree of civility and functioning. And it seemed to have worked. And so what that year did for me was, first of all, let me know that I liked that sort of stuff—I had been living a very happy life as a law professor, it’s a wonderful life. And the other, obviously, was that people thought I did it well. And that really was instrumental, or at least quite significant, in my being chosen as dean. And so, as you know, from there it was downhill.
Immergut: [Laughs] That’s for sure not the case. What occupies your time now?
Sovern: Well, let’s see: I’m chairman of Sotheby’s. I’m the president of the Shubert Foundation, which owns most of the Broadway theaters. And then, of course, I teach. I teach the Legal Methods course.
Immergut: I didn’t know that.
Sovern: Yeah, it’s a wonderful teaching assignment. I don’t remember how we did it in your time.
Immergut: I had Professor Harry Jones [’39 LL.M.]. [He] was a great teacher to start everything out.
Sovern: He was.
I tell you, it’s a dream teaching assignment, because I teach them three hours a day, five days a week, for just under three weeks. So from the teacher’s point of view, you really do have the full attention of the students. And it really gives you the chance to do the job as you think it ought to be done.
And I like the students. As I’ve said to my colleagues, this is a very attractive bunch of young people. The admissions office does a nice job. Anybody could pick a class that’s smart—we get 8,000 applications for fewer than 400 places—but to pick a class [filled with what] seem like decent people, that’s harder. But they seem to manage it. And I tell my colleagues: If these attractive young people turn into the sorts of sons of bitches we meet at the bar occasionally, it’s our fault.